William Paterson University and AP Discuss Innovations in Providing Equitable Access to Degrees at AAC&U Annual Conference

February 6, 2024


The strategic support of a public-private partnership between William Paterson University (WP) and Academic Partnerships (AP) and its innovation in meeting the needs of nontraditional and underserved students were highlighted at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Annual Conference, Jan. 18, in Washington, D.C.

The session, Expand Your Impact: Making Access to Degrees More Equitable Through an Innovative Online/On-campus Approach, featured Dr. Richard Helldobler, President of William Paterson, and Dr. Tekoya Boykins, Director, Academic Strategic Planning and Support for Academic Partnerships.

The Right Strategy Amid Pandemic Timing

During the conversation with Dr. Boykins, Dr. Helldobler reflected upon the factors that led to William Paterson’s partnership with AP. He said that the regional public university in New Jersey, like others in the Northeast, had seen a steady erosion in undergraduate enrollment and was seeking competitive ways to increase sustainable revenue. WP was also concerned with better serving the diverse needs of their student audiences, 60 percent of whom are minorities and/or children of immigrants, with 40 percent identifying as first-generation college attendees.

The university began working with AP in 2019 to take their existing MBA and related business program online, subsequently launching 16 accelerated online graduate degrees in July 2020. “It was a transformative moment,” said Dr. Helldobler of launching online programs in mid-pandemic. “Covid accelerated everything.”

“One of our requirements for faculty teaching the accelerated online programs is that they are all Quality Matters trained,” he explained. “As conversations began between QM-prepared faculty, and those forced to go online quickly without training, everyone began to think about online delivery and the value of related training and instructional tools. It [immediately] helped us become more intentional and thoughtful about our andragogy.”

Shaping High-Demand Online Programs

When WP first considered offering its face-to-face MBA online, 50 students were enrolled. That number totaled 500 within three years of the online launch. Dr. Helldobler credits the growth to “thoughtful collaboration.” He praised the faculty of WP’s business school for quickly adopting the idea and AP’s partnership in helping the university assess the marketplace to create online programs that would serve adult learners’ needs for quality, affordability, and convenience (7-week courses and multiple starts per year).

Dr. Helldobler said, “We asked [a lot of] questions. What are our strong programs that fit with equally strong workforce needs? Can we streamline our curriculum to be more competitive, so that students can earn a degree in 30 credits instead of 36? How can we work with our instructional design arm at the university [to convert these programs into an online format]?”

Innovative Support for Nontraditional Undergraduate Students

With more than a million adults in New Jersey who have not earned a college degree, in 2021 the university added flexible undergraduate degrees designed for adult learners to their accelerated online portfolio.

The university has taken a truly innovative approach in blending online coursework with on-campus resources to promote degree completion for these students, 80 percent of whom are women, with 75 percent women of color and 71 percent being parents.

WP amplified their support by moving the School of Childhood Education into a building purchased just prior to the pandemic and parlaying a $2 million grant to install computer spaces and provide drop-in childcare from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. for the online undergraduate students.

The results of these efforts Dr. Helldobler likens to “the power to change the social fabric.” He recalled meeting virtually with a group of these students, hearing them talk about the profound opportunity to complete their degrees online saying, “It was one of the most powerful hours in my 34 years in higher education.”

Dr. Helldobler concluded by saying, “I’m proud of our market share—one third of the enrollment growth in the graduate degree space in New Jersey publics last year came from William Paterson. But more than that, we are providing more equitable access to higher education for students who would not otherwise have it.

Academic Partnerships (AP) assists primarily regional public universities in increasing their access and impact by making their academic programs available to students online. Founded in 2007, AP’s mission is to expand access to high-quality, affordable, and workforce-relevant education, especially for working and adult students. AP brings single-minded dedication to student success, an integrated set of services, and data-driven performance to our collaboration with university partners. For more information on innovative online learning solutions, please contact us.

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